February 16, 1999
Rio's Carnival parade terrifies as it thrills

                  RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -- The pounding beat of my samba school's
                  theme song rang relentlessly in my head even as the excitement of Rio's wild
                  Carnival wound down on Tuesday after nights of intense competition in flashy

                  Most pre-Lenten celebrations crank into high gear on Fat Tuesday but we
                  have been partying at a feverish pitch since Friday when the first of the samba
                  schools vibrated through Rio de Janeiro's Sambodromo stadium in one of the
                  world's most glittering spectacles.

                  The schools, which are rooted in Rio's teeming shantytowns, fight fiercely to
                  win Brazil's Carnival '99 championship by trying to outdo one another with
                  outrageous costumes, lavish floats and thousands of madly gyrating dancers
                  chanting a hopefully infectious samba tune.

                  In a moment of madness at the height of the country's currency crisis last
                  month, I decided to work off the tension by joining one of the samba schools
                  for its Carnival parade.

                  I found myself dancing like a maniac and singing incomprehensible lyrics in
                  front of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers around the
                  world, while outfitted only in a skimpy costume made of a few glitter-covered
                  leaves and some shiny streamers.

                  It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time as I tried desperately to
                  remember the words and keep on the various parts of my costume while
                  simultaneously trying to jiggle my hips to the pulsating rhythm, just like a

                  "Smile, smile, smile," our section leader called out as she suddenly pulled me
                  into the front line, dashing my plan to hang out in the middle of the crowd and
                  avoid possibly embarrassing our school with klutzy steps or mangled lyrics.

                  It was vicious in the front. I kept getting my face smacked with the costume
                  wings of my neighbours as they fought for a prominent place in this, their
                  moment of glory.

                  The organisers from Vila Isabel, a school located in the northern Rio slum
                  neighbourhood of the same name, had sternly warned us that this was a
                  serious competition and each dancer had to shine -- even foreign visitors.

                  "The judges look at everyone. Everyone. They check if you are singing the
                  song and dancing in a coordinated way together and also if you are still
                  enthusiastic at the end of the avenue," my section leader Jane Goulart told me

                  I had chosen her, and in fact the school, at random. Unlike the natives who
                  become fervent fans of a particular group no matter what its theme, I shopped
                  around for a school with a costume I liked among the dozens on offer.

                  I had something lightweight and airy in mind because I had heard that samba
                  dancing down a half-mile (km) parade route in Rio's steamy weather could be
                  rather unpleasant if buried under a mountain of feathers while balancing a
                  heavy headdress.

                  Of course, I could have done with a little bit more material than I got, but
                  many people wear little more than glitter during the five-day festival of balls,
                  street parties and parades.

                  On Wednesday afternoon we hear the judges' decision. The top five schools
                  will have to squeeze back into their outfits, line up for hours again outside the
                  Sambodromo and dance that hour-long stretch under Rio's sultry skies for the
                  champions' parade on Saturday.

                  But I am not worried. The newspapers say we mounted our most colourful
                  and enthusiastic effort ever, but were still outclassed by at least five other

                  So I will be one of the thousands in the cheering audience and that is probably
                  the best place for me, although I now know the words to Vila Isabel's theme
                  song perfectly and cannot get them out of my head.

                     Copyright 1999 Reuters.